Sound Talking – A One Day Event at the London Science Museum

An interdisciplinary workshop on ‘language describing sound / sound emulating language’

Friday, 3rd November 2017

Dana Research Centre, London Science Museum

Sound Talking is a one-day event at the London Science Museum that seeks to explore the complex relationships between language and sound, both historically and in the present day. It aims to identify the perspectives and methodologies of current research in the ever-widening field of sound studies, and to locate productive interactions between disciplines.

Bringing together audio engineers, psychiatrists, linguists, musicologists, and historians of literature and medicine, we will be asking questions about sound as a point of linguistic engagement. We will consider the terminology used to discuss sound, the invention of words that capture sonic experience, and the use and manipulation of sound to emulate linguistic descriptions. Talks will address singing voice research, the history of onomatopoeias, new music production tools, auditory neuroscience, sounds in literature, and the sounds of the insane asylum.


– Ian Rawes (London Sound Survey)

– Melissa Dickson (University of Oxford)

– Jonathan Andrews (Newcastle University)

– Maria Chait (UCL Ear Institute)

– David Howard (Royal Holloway University of London)

– Brecht De Man (Queen Mary University of London)

– Mandy Parnell (Black Saloon Studios)

– Trevor Cox (Salford University)

Tickets for the event can be booked here.

For more information, please visit the event website, or contact the workshop chairs:

Melissa Dickson <>

Brecht De Man <>

A Medical Student’s Perspective….

This is a guest post written by Wan Ting Yew, a first year in pre-clinical medicine at University College Dublin. Wan Ting recently undertook a summer project to work on the data collected at Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word, a one day conference at the DLR LexIcon Library in collaboration with Dr Elizabeth Barrett and UCD Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Diseases of Modern Life project.

Hello everyone, this is my very first time writing a blog and it’s a pleasure to write about my take on a medical humanities event as a medical student.

In late June, I had the opportunity to attend a medical humanities event because of a summer project on the role of literature in medicine that I have been undertaking at University College Dublin.  So here I’ll be talking about how I’ve learned new perspectives about medicine and doctors after this taster session of the medical humanities. Mind you, the field (despite it being called medical humanities) was very alien to me: I did not even know the difference between theology and philosophy, so you can imagine how awkward I felt during group conversations and how much of the talks simply washed over me. ’ If you’re still reading thus far, you have my heartfelt gratitude. Now, on to the real stuff.

On Tuesday, 27th June, the TORCH Medical Humanities  programme at Oxford hosted an event called Accounts of Illness in Historical and Modern Texts: Exploring Methods in Medical Humanities Research across Disciplines.  The organiser of the event, Professor Katherine Southwood (Theology, University of Oxford), gave the welcome address, during which she provided a summarized framework of the event in three simple words: Illness, Methods, Texts.

The talks started with a physician speaker, Dr Jeff Aronson from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health, University of Oxford.  His talk was about autopathography: written works about the author’s own experiences of illness. He outlined the different forms that illness narratives have taken over the course of time: from paper to the web. He also talked about the underlying themes embedded in these written narratives, which include denial, misattribution of causes and somatisation; I found these important to keep in mind when listening to patient complaints. Then he explained why people write autopathographies, why we should read them and the limitations of such pathographies. Next, Catherine Kelsey who is a nurse lecturer from University of Bradford, further explored potential applications of illness narratives, not only to gain insight into patient life but also to use that insight to develop meaningful skills and treatment approaches. These talks reminded me of the sociology lectures I’ve attended in the past, in which the lecturer has repeatedly mentioned the need to shift the focus of healthcare from the biomedical model to a more humanistic one, in other words, to see the patient beyond the accumulation of bodily symptoms and consider their illness within the context of everyday life. The reasons and causes behind this loss of compassion in clinicians are for another conversation albeit an interesting one. Reading patient memoirs though, does seem like a nice solution. Knowing the patient’s story itself is certainly more powerful than simply being aware that there is a story. Although patient memoirs cannot replace the objective list of a patient history, they are a way to prevent the hustle of clinical work from corroding our sense of compassion. I understand if this sounds very superficial, heck I’ve only finished my first year in pre-clinical medicine so what would I know about compassion fatigue. But what I do know as a medical student is how tempting it is to start cutting corners when the workload is piling up and you start feeling tired from the stress.

Three of the talks were close readings of specific literature. All three speakers were from the University of Oxford: Professor Elizabeth Hsu, an anthropologist walked us through China’s medical case records from 2nd century BC; Professor Olivia Vázquez-Medina, a fellow and tutor in Spanish, explained the inner workings of the Sylvia Molloy’s book Desarticulaciones (2010), a carer’s auto-fictional account of Alzheimer’s disease; Dr Lisa Mullen from the Department of English Language and Literature guided us in unravelling key passages of a patient memoir titled In Gratitude by Jenny Diski. The methodologies of the speakers’ research were too unfamiliar for me to comprehend, but the general idea I appreciated was the importance of considering the culture where the author lived as well as the author’s life story, as this knowledge allows us to accurately understand the narratives they present and what matters to sick people the most. For example, the ‘heart’ can have entirely different meanings and functions in Chinese and English medical texts. Next, it was interesting to learn about the process of recovery from the patients’ point of view.  Dr Hannah Newton, a historian from the University of Reading, spoke about her research on this topic. She taught us that the joy of recovering from illness is largely associated with the bodily senses and this is intertwined with abatement of emotional distress. Her talk focuses on what bothers people suffering from illness the most: sleep, appetite, and nausea. I found this a very meaningful way to reframe my mind set when considering a person’s recovery from illness. Having healed from a sprained ankle doesn’t just mean someone can walk again, it also means that they don’t have to constantly jolt awake from sleep when they turn the wrong way in bed.

Furthermore, there were also speakers who contemplated the role of medicine in society; that concepts of “compassion” and “professionalism” are more malleable than we think and how this malleability impedes moral healthcare. The introduction of the talk was very arresting so I started off feeling very enthusiastic. Sadly however, I could not keep up with the pace and unfamiliarity of the content so by the time the talk ended I can’t help but feel exasperated for missing out on an experience of a lifetime!

Furthermore, Dr Anna McFarlane from Glasgow University used science fiction as a way to critically evaluate what medicine can and cannot do. Her case study of Mary Shelley’s-“Frankenstein” allowed us to explore the controversial topic of medical ethics in terms of human reproduction within the safe confines of ‘fiction’. Delving deeper, Anna showed how Shelley’s personal experience of family deaths and miscarriages lead to such themes in her written works. As a student who used to think that hobbies and studies should be completely separate, it is certainly enlightening to appreciate how much benefit fiction can offer us other than a simple escape from reality: to contemplate the seemingly unthinkable and as windows into people’s lives.

During the day, there was a very provocative discussion among the speakers and attendees about the nature of interdisciplinarity and its use in medicine. Given that there were people from a variety of disciplines: theology, anthropology, medicine, IT, language literature etc., it should be less likely that no such conversation arose. It was interesting to see the conversation unveil how much overlap there is between the research in different disciplines. Medical humanities is notoriously difficult to define as a field or a practice but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Someone also pointed out that subject hierarchy has to be abolished to improve the development of knowledge and for interdisciplinary conversation to be real. Despite my inexpertise in the humanities, I can definitely relate to this as a student; ever since I started school the academic culture is that students who do well in their studies naturally progress to specialize in the sciences, whereas the ‘underperformers’ can only end up in the arts stream. This gives a false and dangerous image of the arts as being impractical and of little value. I could never manage a business course with the amount of accounting and languages they do, and I am definitely not athletic or artistic enough to pursue a career in the arts (both performance and visual) so why the heck should I have the higher stature in people’s views? In my opinion, this stigma prevents us from being open-minded as it makes us blind to the unique values of others and apprehensive to venture outside of our own specialized field. As we reached the end of the conversation, Professor Southwood pointed out something that I think is inherently important for every student and scholar: breaking the borders of each discipline to welcome interdisciplinary conversation would also require us to admit that we are not entirely unique in our academic endeavours, which might be very difficult to accept.

Overall, I found that the humanities subjects are about exploring different layers of a story. I found this very refreshing as I’ve always felt that scientific medicine tends to get too caught up in mechanical efficiency. Yes, both have their merits; though when it comes to providing healthcare, the humanities still have a lot to offer since we are, obviously, human. Of course this experience wouldn’t do anything for my end-of-semester exam grades (at least for the programme I am enrolled in), but it’s one of the rare experiences that make me see a deeper layer of meaning in the bits and pieces of everyday life.

Post-script on the less medical realizations:

Even though I’ve been told by many people that every profession has an irreplaceable value, I’ve only meaningfully appreciated importance of the humanities and its contributions from the bottom of my heart after hearing about the actual work behind the published articles. What I realized as I let these thoughts stew is: we can only genuinely respect something when we know about it, not of it, because that would be too superficial and the more accurate word for it would be ‘politeness’ instead of respect.

Wan Ting Yew

Keynotes from Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word

Both literature and clinical medicine deal with issues such as subjective identity, selfhood, and the social and cultural determinants of health and well-being. This is particularly brought to the fore in the complex relationships between mental illness, the patient, and the physician. At times, this may involve engagement with questions of pain, trauma, language, narrative, and expression, and the disruption and reconstitution of selves. As well as providing insight into these most basic and universal of human concerns, and the attitudes and experiences of people coping with illness or making decisions about their health, how might literature usefully inform the science and practice of clinical medicine?

Our one-day event at the dlr Lexicon Library, Dublin on Friday, 10th March, a joint collaboration between UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Diseases of Modern Life Project based at St Anne’s College, Oxford, sought to locate and to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day. We aimed to identify the roles that writing and narrative can play in medical education, patient and self-care, and/or professional development schemes, and to share our experiences of using and reading literature in the context of mental health, from a range of different perspectives and disciplines.

Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine within the beautiful spaces of the dlrLexicon, we asked questions about how literature might provide a point of therapeutic engagement. We considered the use of literary techniques such as close-reading and textual analysis in medical consultations, and the methods that might be used to increase the well-being and communication skills of medical learners, healthcare providers, service users, and family members.

Our first keynote speaker, Professor James Lucey, spoke about the importance of creating a space for people to tell their stories, and the importance not only of listening to, but of re-telling those stories. Fiction, Lucey suggested, simply doesn’t exist, for all stories are true:

Our second keynote, by Professor Fergus Shanahan, explored the possibilities of ‘mining medicine from literature’, noting the critical difference between the objective disease and subjective experiences of illness. With reference to Proust and Joyce, Shanahan argued that literature can offer a deeper understanding of the place of medicine in society, the historical forces that have shaped it, and the challenges it will face in the future:

In our third and final keynote  Professor Sally Shuttleworth provided a historical perspective on relations between literature and mental health, and argued that literary works in the nineteenth century often furnished frameworks for new theoretical and therapeutical approaches to mental health. In effect, literature brought about a shift in how mental illness was perceived:

Podcasts of these talks are available here, and a storify of the day’s events is available here.

We would like to thank all our speakers, delegates, and everyone who contributed to the discussion online and offline for helping to shape such a fascinating and thought-provoking day.

UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Diseases of Modern Life team.


Professor Femi Oyebode and the Poetry of Disquiet

This is a guest post by Femi Oyebode, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and a recent speaker at Mind Reading 2017: Mental Health and the Written Word, a one-day programme of talks and workshops seeking to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day, organised collaboratively by Diseases of Modern Life and UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The title of this blog might as well have been ‘Mining Medicine from Literature’, borrowing from Professor Fergus Shanahan’s excellent talk at the recent Mind Reading 2017- Mental Health & the Written Word conference held in Dublin in March since that is the subtext this blog.  My contribution was a workshop on the poetry of disquiet. (A podcast of this and other talks is available here). In preparing for my session, I went back to Bashō (1644-1694), a master of classical Haiku. His life was marred by a number of tragedies and hence he understood the spirit of disquiet. His father died when he was 12 years old and his patron also died suddenly when Bashō was 22 years old. At the age of 39 years his home burnt down and soon after his mother passed away. In 1693, a year before his death, his nephew, Toin, for whom he was responsible, died suddenly from tuberculosis and, the following year Toin’s wife, Jutei, also died whilst looking after Bashō’s house.  Towards the end of his life, his poetry centred on sabi, described as a sense of loneliness or aloneness in poetry that conveyed a tragic sensibility. So, you can see why Bashō was my guide and model.

Haiku with its disciplined and highly concentrated form gives an idea of why poetry is such an effective mode for communicating emotional disquiet, for expressing despair and for anchoring a mind that’s in turmoil, grounding it in the firmly shared perspective of human frailty as well as strength. It is comforting to know that others have responded to loss with frailty but have nonetheless triumphed over dark feelings. I did not say much about Haiku at the workshop save to allude to its simplicity, its power and its use of time, place and imagery to capture stillness in a fluid world. Perhaps also like all poetry the pacing and pulse of the words act to comfort too.

Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) understood mental anguish. In poems such as “Sequence in Hospital”, “A New Pain”,  &  “Night Garden of the Asylum” she exposed to the reader’s scrutiny the tedium of hospital life, the sharp and distinct pain caused by the visiting lover’s departure, and the isolating influence of disease as it marks out the distressed soul as Other. These poems speak directly to make memorable but also, and perhaps more importantly, to draw attention to aspects of illness, asylum, and suffering that can go unrecognized by clinicians if not by family. When Jennings wrote

“Observe the hours which seem to stand

Between these beds and pause until

A shriek breaks through the time to show

That humankind is suffering still […]”

She ensured that the reader was involved in the situation, that they became an observer of the ward experience, that the veil covering the manner of existing in a hospital ward was pulled back so that nurses and doctors who may have become inured to the fact of what it means to live on a ward have their compassion and awareness rekindled.

In my view this is the proper role of the humanities in medicine- the capacity to make fresh for the clinician, a situation that is so commonplace, so ordinary that it loses its uniqueness. For the patient these situations are anything but ordinary.

I did not refer to Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) at the workshop. He lived the last 15 years of his life at the City of London Mental Hospital where he continued to compose music and write. Gurney’s gift was to be able to communicate the intensity of his feelings of despair and his powerlessness in the face of extreme anguish.  He wrote in “To God”

“Why have you made life so intolerable

And set me between four walls, where I am able

Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible

Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual

Hell has been put on me, so that all has deserted me

And I am merely crying and trembling in heart

For Death, and cannot get it. And gone out is part

Of sanity. And there is dreadful hell within me.

And nothing helps […]

This is a poem of what it is like in extremis. It makes it impossible for anyone to come to think of depression, or better still melancholia, as anything other than serious and unimaginably painful. The descriptions in textbooks and the attempts to standardize the features of severe mood disturbance fail to communicate the gravity and enormity of the human condition that clinical labels denote. Gurney’s writing, his desire to escape the pain of depression is most patently expressed in “An Appeal for Death”. He wrote

“There is one who all day wishes to die,

And appeals for it – without a reason why –

Since Death is easy if men are merciful.

Water and land with chances are packed full.

Who all day wishes to die […]

Suicide is the unexpressed but obvious desire here. Suicide is a difficult subject. Clinicians are confronted with suicide in their daily work. It challenges the primacy in medicine of the drive for life and the systems in medicine that act to save, preserve, and prolong life. It is capable of infecting the natural optimism of youth, of the young clinician and of the established clinician too, with a slow canker that imperils and corrodes confidence and enthusiasm. And, instead of turning the clinician towards the patient it can turn them away because of the subtle yet virulent energy that the subject of suicide possesses, and that is seen as best avoided if at all possible. I suppose I am hinting at the cost to the clinician of dealing with these situations. What literature does is to allow for a discussion about the depth and extent of feelings involved in this trade between clinician and patient of gross and inexpressible despair and hope. Literature does not solve these dilemmas but can create a space where profitable discussion can take place.

At the end of the conference, the following day, on Sunday, Jan and I went for a walk along from Dun Laoghaire to Joyce’s Tower at Sandycove. It was a blustery morning walk with intermittent rain. On the first floor of the tower was the room that Joyce shared with his friends including St John Gogarty. It was easy to imagine that Joyce and his friends had just stepped out and could return any minute. The way in which the room seemed to be waiting for its previous occupants put me in mind of Fernando Pessoa’s house in Lisbon, at Rua Coelho da Rocha, Campo de Ourique. When I visited his first floor flat, it was just as if he had merely stepped out for a minute. There was his black jacket and waistcoat, a white shirt and black tie, his bed with its yellowish brown and white stripe cover and the black hat resting on it. There was his pair of black shoes and a bookcase with a few books. The title of my workshop was taken from a collection of Pessoa’s, Book of Disquiet.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was a Portuguese poet who wrote prodigiously in several heteronyms including Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, and Alexander Search. He also wrote under his own name. There is a distinction to be made in Pessoa’s work between what might ordinarily be termed pseudonyms and heteronyms. Pessoa wrote in heteronyms, meaning that there was a well-developed character, style and voice to each name that he assumed and wrote under.  It is when he wrote as himself that we come closest to his melancholia. In “Diary in the Shade” he wrote

“Do you still remember me?

You knew me a long time ago.

I was the sad child you didn’t care for

But gradually got to be interested in

(In his anguish, his sadness, and something else)

And ended up liking, almost without realizing it.

Remember? The sad Child who played on the beach

By himself, quietly, far away from the others,

And he sometimes looked over at them sadly but without regret…”

Pessoa continued

“I know you’re watching and don’t understand what sadness it is

That makes me look sad.

It isn’t regret or nostalgia, disappointment or resentment.

No..It’s the sadness

Of one who, in the great prenatal realm,

Must have received from God the Secret –

The secret of the world’s illusion,

Of the absolute emptiness of things –

The incurable sadness

Of one who realizes that everything’s pointless, worthless

That effort is an absurd waste,

And that life is a void {…]”

Pessoa’s response to this existential melancholy was writing. In other words, it was the business of creating and ‘embracing the unreal dimension’ of fiction that allowed him to transcend the ‘incurable sadness’ of living. Pessoa concluded

“My world of dreams fashioned in broad daylight…

Yes, that is what gives

My face an oldness even older than my childhood,

And my gaze an anxiety within my happiness”.

I think that with Pessoa we come full circle to the idea that writing itself, literature can be mined from medicine, from ailments and afflictions. It is not just medicine that is being mined from literature but that there is a mutuality of relationship between medicine and literature. The conference showed this interdependence between medicine and humanities to the participants’ advantage. It was absolutely clear that this interdependence was enriching.

Femi Oyebode

One Day Workshop 10th March 2017. Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word


Venue: Studio Theatre, dlr LexIcon, Dublin

10 March 2017

Conference Organisers:

Dr. Elizabeth Barrett (UCD) and Dr. Melissa Dickson (Oxford).

Keynote Speakers:

Prof. James V. Lucey (TCD),

Prof. Fergus Shanahan (UCC) and

Prof. Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford).

This one-day programme of talks and workshops seeks to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day. It aims to identify the roles that writing and narrative can play in medical education, patient and self-care, and/or professional development schemes.

Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, interdisciplinary professionals, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine, we will be asking questions about literature as a point of therapeutic engagement. We will explore methods that can be used to increase the well-being and communication skills of healthcare providers, patients and family members.

Conference Coordinator:

Victoria Sewell (UCD)

Book here with UCD

Event Schedule


9.30 Arrival and Registration


10.00am–10.45 Introduction and Keynote Address: 

‘Listening to patients, telling their stories’. Professor James V. Lucey, Trinity College Dublin.

10.45–11.00 Coffee break 

11.00am –12.30 Workshops

Workshop A: Children’s Books Ireland and the Book Doctor Project.

Workshop B: Poetry of Disquiet: Professor Femi Oyebode, University of Birmingham.

Workshop C: Lived Experiences- Memoirs, meaning and mental illness.: With the RE:FOCUS group led by Dr Anne Jeffers, College of Psychiatry of Ireland.

12.30–13.30 Lunch at Brambles Café 

13.30–14.15 Keynote Address: ‘Mining Medicine from Literature’.

Professor Fergus Shanahan, University College Cork.

14.50 –15.40 Workshops

Workshop D: Bibliotherapy: The Power of Words Project and the HEAL Project: Health Education and Literacy for our Community,

Workshop E: Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on stress and overwork: Dr. Melissa Dickson and Researchers from the ERC-funded Diseases of Modern Life

Workshop F: The Shared Experiences of Clinicians: Led by Dr. Elizabeth Barrett, Associate Professor, UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Ms. Caroline Ward, UCD Student Counselling Service, Dr. Niamh Geaney, GP and writer, University of Limerick.

15.40pm Coffee break 

16.00 –16.45 Keynote Address: 

‘Literary Texts and Medical Case Studies’.  Professor Sally Shuttleworth, University of Oxford.

16.45 Feedback Q&A and Closing Remarks




Pills for Our Ills: Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People

This is a guest post by Alice Tsay, a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Alice’s dissertation, “Matters of Taste: Digesting Difference in Victorian and Edwardian Culture” examines the rhetorical functions of food and ingestion within discourses of difference during the long nineteenth century.

The folk singer Pete Seeger tells a story about a girl who sickens and is prescribed Dr. Johnson’s Pink Pills for Pale People by the doctor. After her father makes up a song for her on the phone, the ditty gets repeated through the telephone wires until proper communications are drowned out. Eventually, the government cuts down the telephone poles and wires, throwing them overboard far from shore. In the watery depths, however, the wires continue to resonate with the sounds of the song:

Pink pills for pale people,

Pink pills for pale people.

Pink pills, pink pills…

While fanciful, Seeger’s story takes its inspiration from an actual patent medicine called Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. Though he turns it into a fable about the white noise of commercialism in modern society, the tale also suggests the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the product to which it alludes.

L0058211 Dr Williams' 'Pink Pills', London, England, 1850-1920 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images Dr William’s ‘Pink Pills’ were advertised as an iron rich tonic for the blood and nerves to treat anaemia, clinical depression, poor appetite and lack of energy. The tablets were originally advertised as “Pink Pills for Pale People”. Users of the product claimed the pills could even cure paralysis.  The patent for the pills was bought by an American politician, Senator George T Fulford (1852-1905) in 1890. Fulford made the product an international success. maker: G T Fulford and Company Limited, maker: Dr Williams Medicine Company Place made: London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom made: 1850-1920 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Dr Williams’ ‘Pink Pills’, London, England, 1850-1920
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

First formulated in Canada in 1886, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People quickly made their way across the world, appearing in advertisements in dozens of countries by the early 20th century. These advertisements claimed that the pills would cure nearly any ailment, including eczema, rickets, and paralysis. Unsurprisingly, the company’s outsized claims drew complaints from both consumers and professional associations. By the 1910s, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People had gained a reputation in North America and Great Britain as the archetypal quack cure, part of a gullible past with no place in modern medical practice.

In China, however, these pills met with a slightly different fate. Marketed in English language publications in Shanghai from the early 1900s onward, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills also appeared in Chinese-language publications from the 1910s through the early 1940s. In the mid-1920s, these Chinese advertisements went from suggesting that the product could be procured ‘wherever Western medicines were sold’ to declaring that it would be available ‘at all pharmacies’, the latter suggesting much greater social saturation. By 1941, adverts sent customers directly to the National Department of Health (guomin zhengfu weisheng shu), a governmental entity whose focus on establishing public sanitation standards has been seen as a main component of developing modernity in Shanghai.

Though this trajectory of growing legitimacy seems surprising, several features of these pills would have eased their integration into the lives of Chinese consumers. While new Western imports such as deodorant, powdered milk, and oatmeal started out as totally unfamiliar products, the wan or pill form of medication in China dates back several centuries, as medicinal powders formed into a wax-covered ball. Moreover, as a purported cure-all, the pills were a good fit for the symptom- rather than disease-based approach central to traditional Chinese medicine. Marketers further catered to the audience by translating ‘Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People’ into weilianshi dayisheng hongse buwan in Chinese, or ‘Doctor Weilianshi Red Supplement Pills’. With alliteration abandoned, the pink pills became red (though merely in name), taking on a color with greater cultural resonance and existing precedence in traditional medicinal packaging.

The story of Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People in Shanghai is an accumulation of paradoxes, both in comparison to its Western origins and in the context of China itself. To start with, it was a foreign product that was familiarized through the form of traditional Chinese medicine. Beyond that, it was one that increased in popularity in the wake of the New Culture and May Fourth Movements of the 1910s and 1920s, which reacted against both traditional Chinese culture and what was seen as excessive imperialist influence. These seeming contradictions reveal not only the tangled processes of history at a local level, but also the hybrid cultural pathways that contributed to the formation of global modernity.


Bergère, Marie-Claire. Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.

“Cool Things—Pink Pills for Pale People.” Kansas Historical Society. December 2014. Web. 28 November 2016.

Go, Simon. Hong Kong Apothecary: A Visual History of Chinese Medicine Packaging. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. Print.

Illustrated London News. Retrieved from The Illustrated London News Historical Archive: 1842-2003. London, England: Gale Cengage Learning. Web. 28 November 2016.

Liang You Hua Bao [The Young Companion]. Shanghai: Shanghai Shu Dian, 1986-1989. Print.

Seeger, Pete and Paul Dubois Jacobs. “Pink Pills for Pale People.” Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book. San Diego; New York; London: Harcourt, Inc., 2000. Print.

Alice Tsay

‘Drooping with the Century’: Fatigue and the Fin de Siècle

This is a guest post by Steffan Blayney, a PhD student in history at Birkbeck, University of London researhcing fatigue, the science of work, and the working body in Britain c.1870-1939. He is also one of the organisers of History Acts.

In the prologue to his 1892 short story, ‘Number Twenty’, the English satirist Henry Duff Traill personifies the nineteenth century as an exhausted, dying old man. Opening at 11.30p.m. on the 31st December 1900, Traill’s story finds Old Seekleham – an ungainly pun on the Latin saeculum (century) – with just half an hour to live.  Far from mourning his impending death, however, Seekleham greets it with a weary resignation, even relief:

“It was not that he had attained to a greater age than his ancestors …; it was that his life, as measured by exciting and consequently fatiguing experiences, had already far exceeded most of theirs”.

As he reaches his final minutes, our dying century is joined at his bedside by a choir of Decadents, who sing ‘in praise of exhaustion, and disillusion, and failure, and emptiness, and weariness’. Finally, as the clock strikes midnight, they all join in an ‘Ode to the Spirit of Decadence’. By the time it is over, however, Seekleham has already succumbed to his exhaustion, disappearing to make way for the new-born Twentieth Century.[1]

Traill, who fittingly died himself in 1900, was not alone in associating the end of the nineteenth century with exhaustion. Across a diversity of texts, metaphors of fatigue were used to signify political decline, social regression, and cultural deterioration. In an influential article of 1871, the historian James Froude painted a picture of an England overcome by ‘lethargy’, the political and racial ‘vigor’ of its people teetering on the brink of ‘exhaustion’.[2] By the end of the century, in the words of Conservative politician Joseph Chamberlain, the nation had become a ‘Weary Titan’, overburdened by its vast colonial possessions and struggling to match the energy and dynamism of its international rivals.[3] In British culture too, the critic John Addington Symonds diagnosed a pervasive ‘world-fatigue [which has] penetrated deep into our spirit.’[4] Fatigue took its place alongside those other fin-de-siècle (fin-de-Seekleham) signifiers – decline, degeneration and decadence – with which historians of late-nineteenth century Britain are familiar.

dorian-gray-f60078-27-3Majeska illustration (1930) to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (1891): “Fin de siècle,” murmured Lord Henry. “Fin du globe,” answered his hostess. “I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian, with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment.” “Ah, my dear,” cried Lady Narborough, putting on her gloves, “don’t tell me that you have exhausted Life. When a man says that one knows that Life has exhausted him.” (The British Library)

Medical writers, as the physician Clifford Allbutt observed in 1895, were likewise concerned that the British population was ‘drooping with the century’; that the energies of the population were being depleted as a result of the vast and rapid social and technological changes that had characterised the nineteenth century.[5] The spread of industrialisation, urbanisation, education, and new technologies such as the railway and the telegraph had increased the pace and intensity of modern life to such a degree that the body was unable to withstand its constant pressures and demands.

Practically absent from medical or scientific discourse before the 1870s, the final decades of the nineteenth century saw a proliferation of attempts to define, describe, measure, and control physical and mental fatigue. By the end of the century, contemporaries were certain that they lived in an ‘age of fatigue’, with medical professionals concerned that their era would be remembered by posterity as ‘the Tired Age’.[6]

mcdougall-dotter-3The ‘McDougall dotter’. A device for measuring mental fatigue designed by English psychologist William McDougall in 1905. (Museum of the History of Science, Oxford)

Increasingly, distinctions were drawn between normal and pathological states of fatigue, or between ‘fatigue’ and ‘over-fatigue’ or exhaustion. While a certain amount of fatigue was the natural consequence of normal work, continued over-exertion put body and mind at risk of severe, or even permanent, debility. Behind every discussion of fatigue lay the entropic spectre of ‘total collapse’ or ‘irrecoverable degeneration’.[7]

For all its obvious anxieties, however, the fin-de-siècle discourse on fatigue was inherently equivocal. While fatigue expressed itself in individual bodily decline, it could also be read an expression of national progress. If fatigue was a disease of modern civilisation, then an epidemic of exhaustion was the best evidence possible of a civilised society. For many, the archetypal subject of fatigue was less modernity’s discontent than its agent: ‘the eminent lawyer, the physician in full practice, the minister, and the politician who aspires to be a minister … the literary workman, or the eager man of science’.[8] Moreover, authorities on the subject were keen to point out that pathological fatigue was a problem which afflicted only the most advanced societies, the superior races. If fatigue was a common metaphor for Britain’s decline, it could also be exploited as evidence of its social and cultural pre-eminence and imperial dominance; in a word, its modernity.

Late-Victorian doctors were thus faced with an uncomfortable paradox. On the one hand, fatigue represented a failure of the body to meet the demands of modern life, and yet, at the same time, its increasing incidence was the best possible evidence of a society’s supreme modernity. As Britain entered the twentieth century, the problem that would preoccupy both scientists and policy-makers was the following: how could the constraints on the powers of the body be reconciled with boundless social progress? Did fatigue represent a limit to modernity, or an obstacle which it was possible to overcome?

Steffan Blayney

[1] H. D. Traill, Number Twenty: Fables and Fantasies (London: Henry & Co., 1892), 1–13.

[2] James Anthony Froude, ‘England’s War’, Fraser’s Magazine 3, no. 14 (February 1871): 135, 144.

[3] Joseph Chamberlain (1902), quoted in Julian Amery, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, vol. 4 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1951), 421.

[4] Joseph Addington Symonds, ‘A Comparison of Elizabethan with Victorian Poetry’, Fortnightly Review 45, no. 265 (January 1889): 60.

[5] T. Clifford Allbutt, ‘Nervous Diseases and Modern Life’, The Contemporary Review, 1866-1900 67 (February 1895): 210.

[6] Mona Caird, ‘The Evolution of Compassion’, Westminster Review, 145 (1896), 635–43 (p. 643); “A Physician”, ‘Fatigue’, Quiver, 1908, 1012–13 (p. 1012).

[7] Robert Farquharson, ‘On Overwork’, Lancet 107, no. 2731 (1 January 1876): 10; J. Mortimer Granville, Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease (London: J. &  A. Churchill, 1883), 11.

[8] W. R. Greg, ‘Life at High Pressure.’, The Contemporary Review 25 (December 1874): 629.

Worked to the Point of Madness

This is a guest post by Dr Amy Milne-Smith, Associate Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada currently researching representations and understandings of men and madness, 1850-1914.

The Victorians respected hard work. The ability of a man to focus his attention, put his nose to the grindstone, and simply get the job done was not only lauded, it was expected. In fact, the doctrine of hard work became a moral imperative, spread with missionary fervour through the likes of Samuel Smiles. In his 1887 work, Life and Labour, Smiles defined a man by his relationship to work. “Every man worth calling a man should be willing and able to work.”

And yet co-existing with this mantra of hard work and manly pride were great fears of the potential costs of such devotion. Not only were there moral fears of becoming hard, or rapacious, or materialistic—there were also fears that overworking the brain could lead to a breakdown. Serious concerns about the fate of men’s brains due to the pressures of modern work and life led many to seek out pre-emptive solutions.

Victorian quack doctors had unparalleled abilities to prey on contemporary fears to sell miracle cures. The aptitude of medical charlatans to root out and exploit underlying anxieties makes them an incredibly rich resource, therefore, to uncover people’s fears. And clearly, the overworked man was a source of concern.


Advertisement featuring  a man wearing a cap with lightning bolts emanating from its center front representing the cap’s curative magnetic powers against nervous headaches and impaired eyesight, 1880.

In 1901 one such “doctor” named Rumler proclaimed in the fifteenth edition of his work (there are never first editions of such books) on the causes of neurasthenia. This is perhaps the best-known disease of the modern, urban, overworked professional. Neurasthenia threatened not only the individual, according to Rumler, but also the nation. As he explained:

…the State needs men, true men, energetic in body and soul. But what is produced instead is a lot of puny youths who are already worn-out old men; the real men are becoming few and far between, and this will go on as long as the real causes of bodily and mental misery and the decline of nations are not recovered.

A chief cause of this bodily and mental decay is too much “brain work.”

The dangers of overwork worried all manner of doctor from the charlatan to the legitimate. The much-discussed Victorian diagnosis of neurasthenia was, however, the less serious results of pushing oneself too far. There were fears that overwork could lead to complete madness. And these fears were not limited to the so-called experts. Everyday people felt the potential dangers of overwork as well.


E.F. Benson is best known as the author of the Dodo series and the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels. But he also came from a family gifted with talent and plagued by serious mental health issues. As a prolific writer, the shadow of overwork was never far from his mind or his family experience. Detailing life inside this incredibly talented family in his 1921 memoir Our Family Affairs, he outlines the cost of overwork. He strongly believed his brother Robert, an author and Roman Catholic priest, died from overwork. Another brother Stephen worked himself to madness at a young age and died in an institution.

benson-2Edward Benson, The Judgment Books, 1895

Thus when Benson described an artist tortured by his work, his memory, the sins of his past in The Judgment Books, the portrayal is tinged with heightened realism and immediacy. Faced with the suggestion that he do a sensible day of work the protagonist bellows “All good work is done in a sort of madness or somnambulism—I don’t know which. Everything worth doing is done by men possessed of demons.”

Such ideas resonated with a populace that already believed in the connections between madness and genius. There was a sneaking suspicion that perhaps madness was a necessary complement to genius, or an inevitable side effect. The spectre of absolute madness was a real concern for men of genius and hard work.


The potential of men’s overworking themselves to madness was terrifying. With the hope of a cure waning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the diagnosis of madness often meant the end of productive life. And without his work, or his ability to control his mind, a Victorian gentleman was hardly a man at all. As Janet Oppenheim notes in her classic text ‘Shattered Nerves’ the ability of men to control their emotions became increasingly paramount to their identities. The inherent irrationality of a madman thus made him either a brute or an effete. Work too little and risk being branded lazy and useless; work too much and risk descending into madness. The stresses of modern life posed some unwinnable scenarios.

Amy Milne-Smith

A Disease-Free World: The Hygienic Utopia

This is a guest post by Dr Manon Mathias, a Lecturer in French at the University of Aberdeen. Dr Mathias has published several book chapters and journal articles on the nineteenth-century novel, particularly the works of George Sand, and her monograph, Vision in the Novels of George Sand, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. She has also examined the relations between the novel and science, and recently published a journal article on Sand and Flaubert’s readings of Georges Cuvier’s geohistory in French Studies. She is now embarking on a new project examining the digestive system in nineteenth-century French medicine and culture.

Many take a gung-ho approach to hygiene today in the belief that a bit of dirt is good for us. Warnings of antimicrobial resistance seem to justify this position. But at the same time, poor hygiene looms large in health campaigns and adverts as the key agent in spreading colds and viruses. Food poisoning, mostly caused by unwashed hands, also allegedly costs the UK economy nearly £1.5bn a year. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that the fixation with hygiene and its links with disease first came into prominence.

Public hygiene was essential in the emergence of modern Western societies, and France and Britain were the leading nations in this field. It was also in France that the germ theory of disease was born with Pasteur’s work in bacteriology. The realisation that germs spread through human contact in particular led to an acute fear of dirt and an increased obsession with hygiene.

Hygiene in Science Fiction

begums-fortune©Images copyright Andrew Nash 2011

French and English novels from this period provide special insights into views on hygiene and disease, especially in science fiction visions of alternative societies. Leading popularisers of science, Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion, both wrote such novels in the 1880s. Begum’s Fortune (1880) by Verne features a model city of health and longevity created by French hygienist Dr Sarrasin. Despite Verne’s knowledge of the latest developments in disease and its links with hygiene, however, Bégum is more concerned with the implications for society.

Jules Verne

In Sarrasin’s ‘City of Wellbeing’, although illness is virtually eradicated, the focus on hygiene is relentless and the lifestyle repressive. The inhabitants’ psychological and emotional health goes unmentioned and at the peak crisis of the book, when the population faces extermination, they exhibit no ‘disorderly emotion’ such as fear or anger and are ‘in thrall’ to Sarrasin. In this germ-free city, the absence of dirt and disease entails the absence of passion, excitement, and independence of thought.

Camille Flammarion


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Flammarion’s Urania of 1889 goes yet further in its setting and take on hygiene. In this text, two Martians explain that life on earth is a ‘total failure’ due to our reliance on the body. Once the digestive system developed and we began eating other beings, we became base, monstrous and unclean. On Mars, by contrast, they feed themselves through breathing and produce no bodily dejections. But the release from the body comes at a price. The Martians are compared with electrical appliances and live without passion or sexual pleasure.

In both Verne and Flammarion’s texts, the ultimate dirty substance, excrement, is mentioned only to be denied. In Bégum, the ‘products of the sewers’ are immediately expelled and transported to the countryside. In Uranie, the lack of digestion makes excrement non-existent. Intimately bound up with this removal or absence is a rational rejection of disease and infection but also a more indirect rejection of passion, physicality and desire.

William Morris



These portrayals of hygienic utopias can be compared with William Morris’s vision of a twenty-first-century London free from filth, crime and disease. In contrast with Flammarion’s text and Verne’s Bégum, Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) offers an apparently anxiety-free view of excrement and there is a freedom and openness towards the body in this novel where desire is a central and valued force in society.

Public Health

Morris’s less troubled approach to the body might be explained by the more advanced state of public health reform in Britain. The prohibition of cesspits and linking of homes with sewers, for example, had been achieved in London by the late 1840s whereas this did not happen in France until the early twentieth century. Britain also passed its first Public Health Act in 1848 but France had to wait until 1902.

health-act-3Public Health Act of 1848 (

Excrement: residue of the past?

However, excrement is mentioned in Morris’s novel to refer back to nineteenth-century society as a place of dirt and depravity, and America is described as ‘a stinking dung heap’. Both allusions use human waste to denigrate societies distanced from the speaker in space or time. Many theorists of disgust interpret faeces as a hostile residue of the past and our revulsion towards the substance as a fear of our own death. Such interpretations are especially relevant to News from Nowhere where people know nothing of the past and are horrified by references to social history. This erasure of the past is, I would suggest, related to the negative understanding of the dung heap, and the novel creates a more complex vision of dirt and disease than at first it seems.

Although News from Nowhere offers a more positive approach to the body than Bégum or Uranie and even seems to valorise waste (with the ‘dustman’, for example, highly valued in society), the denial of the past and use of excremental imagery to vilify others reveals underlying anxieties towards the body and its ephemerality.

Scholars of history and sociology point to increasing disgust levels as constitutive of the modern Western subject. But the novels examined here do not present the phenomenon in entirely non-problematic terms. The portrayals of utopian hygienic societies reveal instead the fluctuating and contradictory nature of our modern understanding of filth, disease, and attitudes towards the human body.

Manon Mathias

Victorian Precocity as a Modern Complaint

This is a guest post by Mallory R. Cohn, a doctoral candidate in English Literature and Victorian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Mallory is a former managing editor of the journal Victorian Studies. Her dissertation, “Precocious: A Cultural History,” examines Victorian precocity and prodigiousness as both aesthetic fascinations and threatening pathologies across literary, religious, medical, pedagogic, and eugenic texts.

Parenting an “exceptional” child has arguably become something of a twenty-first-century status symbol. In her 2006 book Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child, Alissa Quart warns of the dangers of the contemporary, widespread practice of “prodigy-mongering,” or obsessively trying to nurture or create giftedness in children at the expense of non-productive, playful, and spontaneous childhood. Quart claims, in passing, that precocious children were idealized in the Victorian period, wanting to prevent us from repeating history, but I wonder if she knows how “Victorian” her project is. Her title’s reference to “hothouse kids” makes use of a trope that was ubiquitous in the nineteenth century. As Sally Shuttleworth has noted in The Mind of the Child, “The folk saying ‘Early ripe, early rotten’ was frequently invoked” to describe precocious children, “and literary texts drew inventively on the notion of the overblown flower” (145). In Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848), for example, Dickens prefigures Quart’s title by portraying the overworked classmates of the precocious Paul Dombey as hothouse flowers: “all the boys blew before their time” (162), and Paul’s death is only the school’s worst casualty.

In fact, mid-Victorians consistently correlated premature knowledge or ability with death. The novelist Dinah Mulock Craik’s  essay “A Child’s Life: Sixty Years Ago” was written about an old book she happened to stumble upon entitled A Father’s Memoirs of His Child, published in 1806 by Benjamin Heath Malkin. Malkin was the bereaved father of a highly intelligent son, Thomas, who before his death at six mastered a good deal of Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Craik was not convinced that the given cause of death—a stomach disorder—was accurate: “In spite of Mr. Malkin’s disavowals, we suspect the already too precocious brain had been overstimulated. . . . Far better, a thousand times, to have thrown English and Greek books together on the back of the fire, and helped, encouraged, nay, even forced, the child to be only a child—that in Nature’s slow but sure development he might become successively a boy and a man” (47, my emphasis). Despite Craik’s advocacy on behalf of the “natural,” it is really slowness that she preaches, an enforced re-pacing of childhood’s temporality that enables it to resist modernizing haste or early professionalization.

malkin-3Image of Thomas Malkin, engraving by William Blake

Precociousness children weren’t “new” in the nineteenth century: exceptional childhood has likely always existed. But the Victorians did transmute it into a problem and a pathology, one the psychologist James Crichton-Browne termed “pernicious precocity” and connected to “the practice of commencing artificial education too soon, . . .  to which the circumstances of the age are an ever-strengthening incentive” (344-45). Craik’s armchair diagnosis of Thomas Malkin with “water on the brain” illustrates the way that an abstract difference in cognitive processing—namely, precocity—can be pathologized by pairing it with an embodied, material condition, that of hydrocephalus. The two are mutually reinforcing, and framed as both congenital doom—the “already-too-precocious brain”—and as contingent, environmental violence simultaneously. Thomas’s inborn excess of intellect, by some mysterious intermediate process involving Greek and math, generates the water that drowns him. Craik’s belief, common in the period, in “the intimate connection between mind and body, physical and mental soundness” (58), represents a scarcity model wherein the waxing of intellectual power and functional competence either results in the waning of physical power or occurs as a consequence of bodily deprivation or disease. Craik, well over a century before Quart’s Hothouse Kids, has her own anti-child-gardening project, urging parents to cease “lopping them and propping them, training them after some particular form, forgetting that every human being, like every tree, has a growth of its own” (52). And while Quart does not use an explicitly biological model of precocity, or implicate it directly in early deaths, her goal does seem to be to re-pathologize modern precocity along nineteenth-century lines: to render it a mode of being that strikes adults as dangerous rather than desirable.

I question, however, whether all anti-precocity advocates are motivated by altruism. While Craik ostensibly writes her essay out of pity for Thomas’s untimely death and to excoriate his father for allegedly causing it, one detects an unmistakable throughline of distaste for the “priggish,” conceited, unchildlike boy she has decided to memorialize: “when we reflect what very unpleasant people . . . [Thomas and another deceased precocious child] might possibly have become, we think almost with satisfaction of the two little graves” (51). Craik’s concern for “poor Thomas” cannot quite hide the affective strength of her dislike of his unusualness: his refusal to perform childhood naturally. Precociousness is a complaint that induces complaining, a nuisance in every sense. We sense a relief in Craik’s essay, even sixty years on, that Thomas was culled from the social fabric. Here, the weakness that attends abnormality allows for a Darwinian cleansing: the precocious are unfit to survive.


Craik, Dinah Maria Mulock. “A Child’s Life: Sixty Years Ago.” The Unkind Word, and Other Stories. Freeport, N.Y: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. Short Story Index Reprint Series.

Crichton-Browne, James. “Education and the Nervous System.” The Book of Health. Ed. Malcolm Morris. London: Cassell, 1883.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. London: Penguin, 2002.

Malkin, Benjamin Heath. A Father’s Memoirs of His Child. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806.

Quart, Alissa. Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Shuttleworth, Sally. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mallory R. Cohn